Stepping down from being a manager of developers to the role of a developer, I left a world of broader ideas with fuzzy edges and entered a world of sharply defined rules. Code is not a concept, it commits in real-time to whatever it’s told to do. When it doesn’t work, it tells you. When it does, there is no fanfare. It just does the job.
Code has no context. It does not “get” that it’s doing something new, or something with broad implications. It does not ask why. Code goes ahead and executes. The only code that asks if you are sure is a code that is written to ask if you are sure. Something as cheesy as
I’ve been watching this new trashy and silly, but entertaining, TV show mostly because it stars an old friend of mine. It’s called “Almost Human.” It’s a near-future world in which police now recruit robots as partners to team up with humans. There are two models. The current models, the MX-43, are like code. They are programmed for the task of fighting crime, and do not ask why. They ask permission only if protocol demands. Otherwise, they follow the letter of the law, which can have uneven results. The law, as we know, also has a spirit.
Enter the older model, the “DRN,” affectionately called “Dorian.” These were programmed with an algorithm called “synthetic soul.” Synthetic soul presumably contains all the “if/then” possibilities for human emotions. It was found that the Dorian’s had too much feeling to do the job, too many emotions, so were scuttled in favor of the newer models that strictly follow protocol. (There are no doubt myriad feminist treatises that could be derived from this conceit, but I digress.)
Due to a shortage of newer units , one of the Dorians, which had been mothballed, gets recommissioned as the partner of a cop suffering from PTSD. It is arguable which of the two is the protagonist, and which is the one with better judgment. Dorian is far more handsome and compassionate than his partner (and, I must say, a better actor by a long shot). The very fact of entering into his character as a subject, rather than a very shiny and amazing object, is a testament to the power of the code.
But at its core, it’s code, and code goes where we tell it to go, with algorithms that merely potentiate actions like infinite fractals emanating from a core pattern of our making. Whether we like it or not, however fancy the output is, it’s still code.
I had an experience this week that reminded me of this cold world of code that I now occupy. Nothing so glamorous as Dorian having an anxiety attack in a public square due to a depleting battery, but something that reminded me that I’m not in the Kansas of “big ideas” anymore.
Add to it that I now work at a school of medicine (The MX-43) where I spent over a decade at a college of liberal arts and sciences (Dorian). Schools of medicine are another culture altogether. A highly mobile faculty that is tasked with teaching students and conducting research, all while caring for patients in a large medical setting. These are people who at any point in time have so much on their plates it’s hard to comprehend. Add to it that, on top of FERPA regulations, IT systems have to live within the strict confines of HIPAA regulations. Notions of abuse of email, what information can go where and who has access to it, as well as the crossover between the academic and patient care mission, can lead to unbelievably complex technology scenarios.
As a result, what comes in an email has large implications here. Folks have been trained and warned about use and abuse of email, and faculty don’t want to have to parse what’s good email from what’s malicious. The stakes are kinda high.
So, when a developer (let’s say, for argument’s sake, it is I), is implementing a new mailing list API (“It works! I’m thrilled!”), and neglects to change default code of
"$optin = true;" to
"$optin = false;,” results are instantaneous and stressful: 3,900 unwanted emails go out to the population of highly stressed and highly trained school of medicine faculty and staff.
In the world of big ideas, the difference between true and false can be argued for hours, depending on your discipline. The arts and humanities play with true and false along on its palette of a million social constructs begging for deconstruction. Dorian would have tenure.
But here, I feel that I need to learn how to think like an MX-43. More native developers do this as if in their DNA, but I’m learning in my old age to carve out a synthetic anti-soul so as to enter a world of thought where things act as they are designed and there are no unintended consequences that are not programmed into it to appear unintended.
This type of thinking so does not come naturally to me. I expect my excitement about the code to matter to the code. I expect it to be my friend, to know what I meant.
But, the code does not care. It does what it’s told. And the code does not forgive.